Clint Cox bought the first homestead in his area of north
central Kansas. It came with the homesteaders’ stories of
plentiful wildlife, shoulder-high grasses and free-flowing
The day he closed on the farm, he sampled the soil. Much
had changed during a century of farming. Organic matter
stood at 1%.
As he does with all the ground he farms, Cox began
nourishing the soil. For the past 20 years, he has used crop
rotations, cover crops, grazing practices and biologicals
to push organic matter to more than 3%, a strong gain on
which to build additional organic matter.
“We’re wanting to get back to a system that is using
biology and is not as dependent on synthetic fertilizers
and inputs to make the system go,” Cox said. “We’re
cutting back each year from where we were and the
ground is saying thank you. You can see it. You can pick up
the soil and you can smell it. The soil is alive.”
Cox and his family use practices that restore and exploit
natural systems to integrate their crops, hogs and cattle.
Their focus on biodiversity begins below ground in the
soil’s microbial communities and works its way above
ground to support diverse plant populations through cover
crops and crop rotation, grazing practices and, ultimately,
wildlife that inhabit the area.
Adding Biodiversity Through Cover Crops
Much of what Cox has achieved grew out of single
objectives that led to broader gains. For example, adding
biodiversity above ground and in the soil through
But adding cover crops isn’t free, so he started exploring
ways to cover the cost of seeding. By utilizing a cover crop
mix that was good for his soil and good for grazing his
cowherd, he could make it pencil out.
And even though he originally grazed the cover crop with
the intent of getting the economics to work, this action
brought something else – an added layer of biodiversity.
The livestock provided a natural fertilizer and their hoof
action helped break down vegetation and incorporate
nutrients back into the soil.
“It all turns back into biology. If you start from the
beginning and move forward, it’s all about how that
biology is thriving in each one of those environments,”
Cox credits like-minded producers – friends and
acquaintances across multiple states – with giving him
the tools and know-how to explore different practices: “All
of a sudden, we could start collaborating on the data a
little bit and say, ‘Hey, you should have done this instead.
I tried that and it didn’t work.’ The community was very
important to my education.”
Integrating Soil Biologicals
A few years ago, Cox became a co-founder of Elevate Ag,
a producer-owned company dedicated to soil health and
biologicals. The founders have drawn on lessons learned
on their own farms to help customers understand and
integrate biologicals into their operations.
“They say a teaspoon of soil is supposed to have a billion
microbes in it – bacteria, fungi, protozoa, all sorts of stuff,”
Cox said. “Biologicals thrive under conditions that are right
for them, so there’s always winners and losers within a
biological system. When you elevate the populations of
all of them, what they call a quorum, your soil starts to
behave quite a bit differently … your plants will actually do
things differently because of it.”
Cox has seen an increase in the protein level of his wheat
and starches in his corn. And while his crop and grazing
system make financial sense, he continues to look for
markets that will pay a premium for his practices and their
So far, the brewing industry has been most interested, he
said. Craft brewers want to partner with producers who are
working to be more sustainable. It is not a huge market
and it requires Cox to share data. But, he said, it’s a starting
point as he seeks additional opportunities.